Education in Pakistan: Ten Big Questions

By Anjum Altaf

This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT. The questions are intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the generic issues common to the two countries.

The Big Questions

1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate?

The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression.

2. Can NGOs fill the gap?

The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is important. The problem is too large and growing at a rate faster than the capacity (physical and financial) of the NGOs to eliminate it. The only effective solution is reform of the public education system.

3. Is illiteracy the main problem in Pakistan?

All management and decision-making has been in the hands of the educated and it has been abysmal. Blaming the illiterates reflects either the ignorance or the callousness of the literate.

4. Why are the educated increasingly bigoted and intolerant?

The content of education and the style of pedagogy are both problematic and need attention. A literate individual taught to accept falsehoods and prejudice unquestioningly would be more dangerous than an illiterate person. There is a difference between education and indoctrination.

5. What is the problem with the content?

In the worst case, the content has been subverted to promote ideological objectives. In the best case, it is oriented to the job market and is overly information and skill oriented. The humanities that inculcate critical thinking are considered a waste of time and poorly taught. The product is either an unthinking ideologue or technician. The technician could be very competent but not likely to be innovative or flexible.

6. What is the problem with pedagogy?

The pedagogical style rewards memorization and suppresses critical thinking. This can be by intent, by self-censorship motivated by fear of persecution, or by capacity constraints imposed by very large class sizes.

7. What is wrong with philanthropy in Pakistan?

NGOs set internal goals like doubling the number of students enrolled in five years and celebrate their achievement even though such goals have no relevance to the scale of the problems they wish to address. In unequal societies, philanthropy is primarily a vehicle for feeling good not for effectively solving problems. Charity is laudable if the objective is to be charitable. It should not be conflated with problem solving.

8. What is the ideal role of NGOs?

NGOs have a vital and critical role to play but it is not one of filling the resource gap. NGOs should be experimenting with new content, pedagogy, incentives, and financing mechanisms to be mainstreamed into the public education system. They should be acting on behalf of citizens as a lobby to raise the political priority of education and presenting effective models for reform of the public education system.

9. Can the existing problem be solved in the traditional way?

The resource gaps, especially in teaching capacity, are now too large and the vested interests too entrenched to allow traditional approaches to succeed. Recourse to modern technology (Internet and mobile phones) is needed to leapfrog barriers of state resistance, mass illiteracy, and low incomes. Note that mobile phone is a technology that will scale to the magnitude of the problem and become more functional at the same time. By 2020 almost every individual is expected to have access to a mobile phone and the ability to afford it. Experiments have confirmed that illiteracy is not a bar to the acquisition of knowledge and information.

10. What is the bottom line?

Access to education and control of content are as much political issues as social or financial ones. They need a political strategy spearheaded by NGOs and backed by technological innovations overcoming state resistance, capacity constraints and income limitations.


  1. International Coalition for Educational Reform in Pakistan.
  2. Elite Dominance and Under-investment in Mass Education (Indian States).
  3. Annual Status of Education Report 2008 (Rural India).
  4. Are NGOs Relevant?
  5. On Philanthropy.
  6. The Subtle Subversion: the State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan.
  7. Producing Thinking Minds.
  8. The Problem with the Educated Middle Class.
  9. Technology and Education: Internet; Mobile Phone.
  10. The South Asian Idea.

Dr. Anjum Altaf is a member of the advisory council of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan and a contributor to The South Asian Idea, an experimental e-learning resource for college students in South Asia. Contact:

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  • Attock
    Posted at 19:35h, 25 July Reply

    Will Pakistani children ever get educated???

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 02:34h, 26 July Reply

    Attock: You have read what I have to say. I would like to hear your opinion and prognosis based on your first-hand knowledge of the situation in your district. Based on that we can build a dialogue.

    These kinds of situations can change very rapidly but at this time I don’t see any trend that could trigger a positive change. I look forward to discussing this further.

  • Hammad Khan
    Posted at 00:40h, 27 October Reply

    I do agree with most of the points mentioned above. The state of Pakistan today, and the division of Pakistani society into classes which rises from the difference of financial resources point to the fact that our education system has failed us. However, we have recognized the problem, so now we should look for a solution. Once we have established that this system is flawed, so we definitely need reforms in this system. How do you think should the reforms be introduced in the current system and what exactly should they be? How can we revolutionize our education system? What I mean exactly is, is our study of ancient philosophers and civilizations lacking which leads to lack of critical thinking ability in our students? Or should we introduce spiritual teachings of philosophers which could lead to better characters, and thus, better leaders?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:37h, 27 October

      Hammad: Your comment includes four distinct questions: (1) What are the reforms that are needed? (2) How should the reforms be introduced in the current system? (3) How can the education system be revolutionized? (4) How can critical thinking be promoted?

      A summary response would be as follows:

      1. The nature of reforms include three critical elements: What is taught (the curriculum or content); How it is taught (the technique or pedagogy); and Who is taught (access).
      2. The current system is extremely politicized. Reforming it is not a issue of introducing new knowledge. Reform would require a political struggle centered around a popular demand for better education.
      3. I don’t think education can be revolutionized by trying to fix the old system. A new system has to be put in place that would become the nucleus of change because parents would want it for their children.
      4. Critical thinking does not depend on studying any particular thing but on the method of study. Teaching ancient philosophers or civilizations in the same old way would not lead to any change nor would spiritual teaching (of which there is enough) lead to better character. Critical thinking requires moving away from a methodology built around the transmission of certainty and truth to one built around questioning and doubt.

      Most of these points are elaborated in the posts on education on the blog that can be accessed here:

    • Vinod
      Posted at 14:19h, 27 October

      Critical thinking requires moving away from a methodology built around the transmission of certainty and truth to one built around questioning and doubt.

      Hear hear.

  • kamran
    Posted at 05:29h, 04 February Reply

    i have done my hsc with engineering can i apply for international studies in us

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:17h, 07 February

      Kamran: There seems to be no reason why you should not be able to apply to the US after your HSc.

  • Ali
    Posted at 14:10h, 16 February Reply

    Reading about the ruling elites, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Wadera system. I have had a bit of taste of this system. They don’t want their authority over the poor masses to be harmed by outside forces and they want to retain this power forever. But there is a brighter side to it, their children. The waderas are mostly illiterate and narrow minded but they want their children to be educated. I know wadera’s son who are currently studying in England and I do hope that their thinking and their approach to this system and education will be different from that of their fathers. What we need to do is to target wadera’s children more. The problem is that mostly these students drop out after their matric or Fsc degree to start working with their father and very few end up getting further education. We need to change their mindset. We need to have sessions in elite schools of backward areas, like The Public School, Sukkur or Cadet College, Petaro. We need to make them realize the importance of education. You can ask for the stats from the admission department of LUMS about how many students from these schools apply for admission here. Hardly ten I believe.

    Another important problem is that no one wants to become professional teachers at primary or secondary level and those who do take up teaching as a profession are not good enough teachers. University students who teach tuition can spent their precious time teaching in schools as a part time job rather than spending it on tuition and I believe that they will be willing to do that.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 07:58h, 17 February

      Ali: Your suggestion sounds plausible but I am not so optimistic. The question to ask is how social conciousness is shaped – to what extent is it hardwired by the the age of adolescence and the extent to which education can undo that consciousness? It is not just now that the children of waderas have started going to college. Most of the educated representatives in our parliaments are connected to landed families – have they lost their sense of privilege in any way? Bhutto went to Oxford, so did Benazir and now Bilawal is there. Have you seen Bilawal questioning his right to inherit a political party? Just recently we had the spectacle of Rahul Gandhi being crowned Yuvraj. In his acceptance speech he made an impassioned plea for democracy and meritocracy in the party without the least sense of irony at his own dynastic imposition from the top. There is only so much that education can do.

      As for teaching at the primary or secondary levels, why would anyone want to do something that society does not value in any way?

    • Ali
      Posted at 15:06h, 17 February

      Sir, with all due respect, I accept that there are educated representatives in our parliament but there is also a large majority of uneducated people with their fake degrees sitting there. Even today majority of the children of waderas drop out after completing their Matric or Fsc degree to start working with their father. The mentality of these drop outs will be different from the ones who pursue further studies.

      What I was proposing will contribute a little bit to our society. More work needs to be done in improving the literacy rate of Pakistan. Improvement is needed in public school’s educational system, hiring better teachers, improving the syllabus being taught, an end to party politics in government universities. I these bits will all together bring massive change in our society and increase our literacy rate.

      I just asked my room mate that if he had to teach in a government school as a part time teacher, where there are no competent teachers, so will he take this opportunity and teach the deprived? He said yes.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:45h, 18 February

      Ali: Your argument is based on a premise – “The mentality of these drop outs will be different from the ones who pursue further studies.” Can you take that for granted or does it have to be established? There are some representatives from landed families in parliament who actually do have BA degrees. Is their ‘mentality’ substantively different from those who only have a FA?

      I am not arguing against education. What I am saying is that the social structure exerts a tremendous weight which cannot be undone just by a BA degree. Most likely all the slave owners in the American South had BA degrees. Those who proclaimed ‘all men are born equal’ were educated and and also owned slaves. Our literacy rate has increased greatly since 1947. Has it brought about a massive change in our society? If so, of what kind?

      Ask your room mate to come see me. I will arrange a job for him in a government school where there are no competent teachers. That might well start a trend.

    • Ali
      Posted at 06:29h, 18 February

      agreed sir.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 07:50h, 23 February

      Ali, Don’t concede so easily. Argue your point – examine it from some other perspective.

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